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Bengals networking to contention

Leon Hall

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - Maybe we'll have to rethink that national perception of the Bengals.

Certainly two guys that were on the field for Wednesday morning's practice arrived raving about the club, particularly at their positions of expertise.

Of course, they have pretty deep ties to the Bengals. NBC's Cris Collinsworth, calling Sunday's 8 p.m. Hall of Fame Game with Al Michaels, played in both of the team's Super Bowls while going to three Pro Bowls.

NFL Network's Rod Woodson was actually on the field Wednesday in his role as a minority intern coach in the secondary before he left Thursday to perform an impressive double in Canton. He'll put on the network blazer Friday and Saturday (as well as his Hall of Fame blazer) before meeting up with the club Sunday and putting on what he hopes is sideline regalia.

"The older guys are only going to play a series. I'd like to be down there with the young guys on a down-by-down basis," Woodson said.

Collinsworth, Bengals season-ticket holder for what he calls "forever and a day," is jacked about the Terrell Owens move. He calls it the Bengals' go-for-it moment and the uncharacteristic boldness of it makes him think they think they can contend to win it all. He thinks they can.

"Let's be as conservative as possible and say they're 1,000 yards better in the passing game," Collinsworth said. "Where does that put them? Could they have beat the Jets that (playoff) game? I could make a pretty strong case at home maybe that happens. Justifiably people are looking at the Bengals as a pretty legitimate Super Bowl contender."

The last time they went, Collinsworth was at the end. At age 29, he caught just 13 balls and a touchdown and he didn't make it through the 1989 training camp before he was cut. A stunner then, but not in the archives. Before 2008, only three wide receivers in club history caught a pass at age 30 in Isaac Curtis, Michael Westbrook and Tim McGee on his second tour.

It doesn't bother Collinsworth that what looks to be the starting receivers are the 36-year-old Owens and 32-year-old Chad Ochocinco.

"It's definitely a different era," Collinsworth said. "I think Terrell is bit of a freak and in football terms that's a compliment. Physically he's just superior to a lot of guys. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Jerry Rice played until he was 40. Some guys can make it last a little longer.

"The thing I like about him even if he's a step slower than he's been, you still have to tackle the guy. That's a big man (6-3, 225) to try and put down. ... When the Cowboys and 49ers were using him, there were a lot of short, quick balls. Get it in his hands and see if someone can tackle him. You don't always have to go over the top with him."

Collinsworth likes the move because he was worried about Antonio Bryant's knee back in March when the Bengals signed him. He wondered why the Buccaneers, desperate themselves for receivers, didn't try to keep him and now we seem to know because he's only practiced once.

All indications are the Bengals aren't going to fool around. They want to give Bryant time to rehab, but they also want to know if he can give them anything before they decide to cut some younger players. The thinking is they'll see what he can do in the final three preseason games or so and they'll know for sure. Complicating things is that Jerome Simpson and Maurice Purify are playing well and making a real push.   

"They have enough depth to make it work," Collinsworth said. "If it had been Bryant and Chad, I would have said, 'No.' that's why I think the Bengals made the move that they did. They needed three to play two. Hopefully out of the three of them they can get it done. It's not like the rest of the guys can't play. I think the Bengals are pretty deep at receiver."

Which six? Bryant is, of course, the key with Owens, Ocho, Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley set.

It has been a great show in practice because the receivers are going against the other massively deep position. Woodson said this into the NFL Network mike long before he said it this week about starting cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall:

"I think they're the best tandem in the league," Woodson said. "There's (Darrelle) Revis and the Jets just got (Antonio) Cromartie, but (Joseph and Hall) are the best overall tandem in the NFL because they play at such a high level."

When both Joseph and Hall had nicks last weekend, Adam Jones and Morgan Trent stepped in and held their own against the first group. David Jones, heading into his fourth season, is a smart guy that gets his hands on a lot of balls. Brandon Ghee, the third-rounder, and free-agent Johnny Sears are rookies where there doesn't seem to be much separation.

Woodson knows. Corners don't grow on trees.

"They've got a lot of great depth," said Woodson, the former Steeler and Raven apparently not quite ready yet for "We."

"Normally you look for three good corners. They've got four or five guys that can play," he said.

These are the things he's seeing in the 7-on-7 drills.

"Out on the perimeter the quarterback is holding the ball and when he has to scramble out to find more time, you're doing an outstanding job," Woodson said. "And every practice it happens three to four times in the series they have to scramble to get out on the perimeter to find more time. That's telling you they're covering people down the field."

With Adam Jones' comeback taking shape, no team probably has the talent the Bengals do in its first three corners.

"They bring in Adam, a tremendous athlete," Woodson said. "He's going to get the kinks out and he's going to learn to be a professional here because that's what Mike (Zimmer) is going to ask of him. No cowboying out there. Play in the system."

At 45, Woodson is at a kind of crossroads. His kids are old enough now that he wants to try coaching, but he admits living in California and working TV is a good gig and he loves his life. But he forgot how much he missed the game in the seven years away from the field.

"It was refreshing to come back and see it, especially with a guy like Mike Zimmer," Woodson said. "He's a tremendous teacher. Little things matter to him. I've learned a lot."

You can tell Woodson is torn. Part of the beauty of the weekend for him is that he'll see his good friend and mentor Dick LeBeau inducted into the Hall.

"I'll never say never," he said of coaching. "You love being around the guys, putting the stories out there, that's fun. I can see why Dick LeBeau has coached over 36 years because of the love he has for the players and the love he has for the game."

Meanwhile, Collinsworth keeps rolling along in his Emmy-filled career. Woodson can take two kinds of notes this weekend. Collinsworth got there because he calls it like he sees it. The Bengals are just glad somebody in the national media is noticing.

"The only thing that I think is dangerous for this football team," Collinsworth said, "is what if they discover they really are better off playing defense and running the ball? Are these guys going to be happy, or will it cause a little disruption at that point? You can't answer until you get there."

At least, now, the Bengals are in the debate by the guys in the blazers.

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